The evolving Formula 1 calendar: Style over substance?

Twenty-four in 2024. That is the number of Grands Prix on Formula 1’s record-breaking schedule next season as the sport strives to profit from its surge in popularity.

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A third of those events will take place at venues that are either on public roads, designed in the style of a street track, or are located within a temporary facility.

Monaco used to be Formula 1’s standout street track. First used in 1929 and always run to its own quirky timetable, it was the jewel in the crown for glamour, schmoozing with business associates, and as the race where the rich and famous wanted to be seen.

It remains the most iconic street circuit, wiggling and winding through the confines of the Mediterranean Principality, but it is no longer such an unusual event like it was in days gone by.

Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Corniche Circuit joined the fray in 2021, featuring 27 corners and constructed using repurposed public roads. It was only supposed to be used for two years, until the enormous sports and entertainment hub in Qiddiya is complete, but that circuit will not be available until 2027 at the earliest.

The Miami Grand Prix was created using a similar template when it arrived on the scene in 2022, mapped out on the campus that circumnavigates the Hard Rock Stadium, and with walls sufficiently close enough to create the illusion of a street track.

And in 2023, Formula 1 finally realised a decades-long dream by racing in downtown Las Vegas. It was a spectacular show, with the circuit featuring a massive 1.8km stretch of the iconic Strip which allowed the field of 20 to hurtle past the dancing Bellagio Fountains, and the ginormous, neon-lit casinos where dreams are made – and shattered.

That trio of races joined Melbourne, Montreal, Baku, Marina Bay and of course Monaco, with the city courses in Azerbaijan and Singapore that were added to the Formula 1 calendar the turn of the century.

Together, they create quite the contrast from some of the most adored and historic venues in world motorsport, namely Silverstone, Monza and Suzuka.

Creating space for new race locations has unfortunately come at the expense of other long-standing Grands Prix that have fallen by the wayside.

Sepang in Malaysia dropped off the page after its 2017 race, newly-build permanent race tracks like Turkey’s Istanbul Park failed to be invited back, while the French and German Grands Prix – once staples of any calendar – are now a distant memory.

The changing profile of the F1 calendar begs the question: is it the right path for the sport to be taking?

Street course often come with compromises, having to be malleable to the limitations of the public routes, and can often be harder to race on. That’s because, along with the walls and the tighter confines, street tracks are used infrequently, meaning off-line grip can be close to non-existent.

Modern-spec, stiff Formula 1 cars are hardly designed for lower grip levels and, as is often the case at street tracks, the slower and more cumbersome bends with awkward kerbs and trajectories. It means these amazing machines are not truly able to demonstrate their potential, which can be frustrating for drivers.

“I know from the outside, the show maybe looks good, but these cars are not made to go around corners at 80km/h,” Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso stated at the 2023 Las Vegas GP. “They are made to go to Suzuka, to Barcelona and Silverstone and maximise the potential – that is where we need to balance the championship and the calendar.

“It is what we are doing, but I don’t think this is the only way to go – we need to keep the traditional races as well, where the Formula 1 car can shine.”

Such comments have been echoed by Formula 1’s three-time World Champion Max Verstappen.

“I think naturally already for me, a street circuit is not very exciting – especially with these new cars,” he said. “They’re just too heavy. Especially also then when you have low grip, that doesn’t help.”

But the promoters are the ones who pay the money. And if they want to promote their region by bringing Formula 1 into the heart of a city, series bosses certainly aren’t going to turn them away.

Driver favourites, such as Spa-Francorchamps and Zandvoort, continue to get only short-term deals and are occasionally part of the conversation that explores circuits alternating. Ask any driver for their favourite circuit and their eyes will light up when thinking about Spa-Francorchamps, Silverstone or Suzuka. Hardly surprising.

So, with this in mind, it’s important Formula 1 doesn’t forget its heritage, and where the drivers and cars adore competing, as it evolves into and embraces its next chapter.

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